Italian town of Cisterna di Latina marks World War II battle and roundup by the Nazis

By Victor L. Simpson, AP
Friday, March 19, 2010

Italian town commemorates World War II tragedy

CISTERNA di LATINA, Italy — For American forces fighting their way north to Rome, it was the site of a heroic but hopeless stand, where only eight men out of two Ranger battalions escaped German troops.

For the Italians caught in the fighting, it was the place where they lived underground for months before being sent on a forced march north by the Germans.

On Friday, the anniversary of the roundup in 1944, this town between Anzio and Rome held its annual commemoration of the bloody events of World War II with ceremonies held beside a monument to victims of all wars and school children visiting the grottoes where their grandparents took shelter from the bombing.

This town of 32,000 people, once a manufacturing center but now the heart of kiwi production in Italy, has not forgotten the elite U.S. Army Rangers, who fought to liberate them from the Nazi occupiers. There is a Via dei Rangers, a school named after the Rangers’ commander William O. Darby and signs noting Cisterna is twinned with Darby’s hometown, Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The site of the Cisterna battle, alongside a canal on the road to Nettuno, is recorded by a plaque in English, German and Italy recalling those who “fought and died.”

“It is an ugly memory but we can’t forget it because it is part of the history of our country,” Mayor Antonello Merolla said at the ceremony

By all accounts, the Cisterna battle was a disaster for the Americans.

The Rangers were used as a spearhead after the landing at Anzio, but because of poor intelligence met unexpected, fierce resistance at Cisterna and by authoritative accounts did not have the support weapons to overcome it as they battled through mud and drainage ditches.

Rick Atkinson, in the book “Day of Battle” said 250-300 Rangers died and eight escaped, leaving hundreds of others captured.

According to Marsha Henry Goff, an unofficial historian for the Rangers whose father served in the elite corps, “Col. Darby, who had protested the use of his Rangers as conventional troops — contending they were trained for a different type of fighting — had gone into a room alone and sobbed” after learning of the casualties.

She said the first word of the disaster came in an Associated Press war dispatch from Naples on March 8 — five weeks after the battle.

“A grim secret kept locked in the hearts of allied troops in Italy for over a month now has been placed in the record of heroic but hopeless ‘last stands,’” it began.

The breakout from the beaches of Anzio had been stalled and the liberation of Rome, the first Axis capital to fall, would have to wait until June.

This was also grim news for Italian civilians.

“We lived for months underground,” Bruno Fieramonte, 75, a retired school teacher, told school children taken down to the dark and dank grottoes of a 16th-century palace on the main square, recalling the fighting and bombing that destroyed 90 percent of the town’s buildings — with only few scarred and blackened homes from that era still standing.

Then, on March 19, the Germans, increasingly worried about resistance, rounded up the entire town and marched them north. Many ended in labor camps and farms as far north as Tuscany.

Felice Paliani, who was 13 at the time, said he was taken in as a mascot by the Americans when Cisterna was finally liberated. “We survived because we were united,” he said.

Surviving Rangers, mostly in their 80s, generally visit around American Memorial Day, combining it with a stop at the military cemetery in Anzio-Nettuno.

The mayor was asked by this reporter whether German survivors were ever invited. “Actually no,” he replied. “But you’ve given me an idea for next year.”

(This version CORRECTS Corrects “plague” to “plaque” in 5th graf.)

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